Zionism and the Struggle Towards Democracy

By H. M. Kallen

[The Nation; September 23, 1915]

At the beginning of the great war there were over 100,000 Jews in Palestine. Broadly speaking, they were divisible into two classes, rapidly fusing into one. The first class were mainly inhabitants of Jerusalem, European Jews, who, under the pressure of a religious idea, had gone, to Palestine to die, and who, failing death, survived and bred in a sort of Orientalized death-in-life, and were sustained in that condition by the pious charity of other European Jews. The second class were mainly inhabitants of the coastal cities and the agricultural colonies. They were also European Jews. Under the pressure of a social ideal they had adventured into Palestine to live, and having come to live, had brought the message of life and self-respect and independence to those who had journeyed there to die. They built forty-one agricultural colonies with coöperative features; they put into execution, in several of them, significant experiments in economic justice; they built garden-cities, established social settlements, gymnasiums, workingmen's clubs, literary and learned societies, a national drama with community theatres, a national press and a national library, a school of arts and crafts and a public-school system—from the most approved form of the modern kindergarten to excellent gymnasia. They urged and projected a national university, and only the war came in the way of its foundation. In short, they created under the impetus of a profoundly democratic social ideal a spiritually autonomous, characteristic national Jewish life.

The language of this life is Hebrew; its ideal is formulated in the programme of Zionism. The agency by means of which it was being realized is the Jewish National Fund. This fund is the national treasury of the Jewish people. It is the result of a voluntary tax which Jews all over the world levy upon themselves as they choose. Its function is to acquire land in Palestine as the permanent and inalienable property of the Jewish people, and to guide and assist the healthy growth and free expression upon that land of their culture and spirit as "the indispensable ground for the fullest service of the Jewish people to all mankind."

The realization of the Zionist programme is thus, it will be seen, a fact. Although far from consummation, it was, when the war broke out, steadily in progress. Its initiators were a body of tenderly-nurtured young Russian Jews, intellectuals who, although ignorant of the land and its conditions, adventured— because of the immemorial Jewish love for Palestine and in obedience to the urge in them towards a free and self-respecting life as Jews—as pioneers to win this life under an indifferent and sometimes hostile Government, against inimical neighbors and disease, and upon a denuded soil. This enterprise would have been merely another communistic flash-in-the-pan had it not in fact been the symbol of the common will of millions of terrorized and oppressed people, a will which needed only organization and direction to become efficacious.

The necessary organization and direction came to it through the efforts of Theodor Herzl. This brilliant and magnetic leader, ostensibly a Viennese of the Viennese, resident in Paris, was led by his observation of Jewish disabilities and anti-Jewish agitations in Western Europe to conceive a "Judenstaat" whereby the maladjustment might be relieved. His first intention was philanthropic rather than humanistic, the mitigation of an evil, not the creation of a good.

Consequently he took his plan to financial magnates of Jewish extraction all over Europe. These would not listen to him. "Civil rights" for Jews in Western Europe were then hardly a generation old. They had been won at the cost of suppressing and eliminating as much as possible of what was distinctively Jewish; in fact, by denying the reality of Jewish nationality and designating the Jewish people as merely a religious sect. From the complete exercise of these rights the so-called "emancipated Jews" of whom the magnates were the leaders, were still far; to attain it they developed a sort of protective coloration by virtue of which they could not cease to be Jews, but did become amateur Gentiles, ashamed of their Jewish connection and concealing it so far as possible. Withal, although they had cut themselves off to the limit of their power from the Jewish people, they presumed to legislate and speak for them. They were, in fact, the natural successors of the mediæval "Hof-Juden," those mediators between the Jewish-masses and the neighboring peoples; but while mediæval conditions had ceased to obtain in Europe, their attitude towards the problems of Jewish life remained, and remains, hieratic and mediæval.

Hence those that listened to Herzl were the intellectuals, who had reflected upon the contradictions in the Jewish position, and the great masses in Eastern Europe, who had neither wished nor needed to destroy their self-consciousness as a nationality. The first Zionist Congress, held in Basle, Switzerland, in 1897, defined the general alignment of the Jews of the world on their own status and destiny. It arrayed the intellectual, the "progressive," and the masses, against the clergy, the radical, the Bundist, and the classes, but it showed in the range and variety of its membership how potent over all differences was the common denominator, Jew. Since the congress the radicals have been slowly coming over, partly through a realization of their own hopeless abstractionism, partly through a realization that Zionism is the one practical answer to the Jewish question, in that it has provided the Jews of the world with a common instrument for its solution, for registering their corporate wishes and carrying out their corporate purposes.

These wishes and purposes were not, however, remedial. They were expressive and constructive. The first congress made much of the tragedy and injustice of the Jews' position, but this fact fell, in the course of the successive congresses, more and more into the background, most conspicuously in Herzl's own mind. Between the publication of his "Judenstaat" and his "Altneuland" he had learned to share the vision of the people. Zionism became first and foremost the Jewish programme of international service through national self-realization, aiming to lay in Palestine the foundations of a new and living Hebraism, which, under modern conditions, should carry into effect the social and spiritual ideals of the Hebrew prophets, and so fulfil, in Mazzini's words, the Jews' "special function in the European work of civilization." Its democracy was double. To the Jews of the world it came as a programme of self-help and social justice within Jewry; giving the same rights and responsibilities to both sexes, and actually trying out experiments in economic organization to abolish the exploitation of one man by another without abolishing the impetus towards individual excellence. To the nations of the world it reasserted the prophetic ideal of internationalism as a democratic and coöperative federation of nationalities, an ideal which Mazzini had formulated for Western Europe half a century before. Zionism asks, in the light of it, the same freedom for the Jewish people to realize its national individuality as a people that is demanded by all European peoples for themselves. Within Jewry and without, it took its stand flatly upon the principles of democracy and nationality.

To do this meant to face the energetic anathema of de-Judaized, anti-Jewish "Jewish" haute-finance; to accept the risk of the vengeance of a Russian bureaucracy devoted to the policy of the "Russification" of the Empire by making the Jews scapegoats for the errors and misdemeanors of the Government. Both were faced. The last suspicion of philanthropism was abolished at the sixth congress, in 1903, by the heroic rejection through the vote of the very groups who might most have benefited by acceptance, of the British offer of a territory in East Africa. That vote declared the people's unchangeable will to place the legally assured home of the Jews in Palestine and nowhere else. It alienated the philanthropically-minded, notably Mr. Zangwill, who, not being democratic enough to accept the decision of the majority, withdrew in 1905, one year after Herzl died, and set up an organization of his own.

The split added to the difficulties which the movement confronted. Nevertheless, the work went on, in Russia against overwhelming difficulties; in the rest of the world against the obstructionist tactics of the well-to-do Jews; in Palestine itself against the uncertainties of the law of the land, the irresponsibilities of officials, the enmity of neighbors. Particularly there was the delicate task of teaching the Turks to understand that, since their Empire was organized on the basis of nationalities or millets (the term is religious, but it implies nationalities in the Turkish system), an accretion to the Jewish millet in Palestine would strengthen the hands of the Empire. Little by little the movement made headway. As its purposes became better understood, it gained the universal respect of the non-Jewish world, and the adherence and sympathy of Jews, particularly of the intellectuals and the young. It brought spiritual freedom and self-respect to the amateur Gentile in the West, giving him an impersonal ideal to live for and international social purpose to attain. For the Jews in Russia, confronted with harsher and harsher measures of repression, it became a gospel of salvation. To Palestine it brought a new life, in the building of which even non-Zionists, particularly in America, coöperated. Willy-nilly, it was becoming the Jewish centre of vision and action for all the Jews of the world, bidding fair by slow and peaceful and largely unconscious development greatly to mitigate, if net to solve, the chronic "Jewish question," when came the war.

The war has made the principles of democracy and nationality for which Zionism stands the paramount issues of contemporary life. Because the Russian bureaucracy, to cover the treachery and incompetence of its officials, has once more made the Jewish people its scapegoat and converted the Pale of Settlement into a Belgium thrice repeated, the war has brought the chronic Jewish question to a crisis. Turkey's participation in it has jeopardized the hard-won beginnings of a generation in Palestine. The tragic anomalies of the Jews' position have never been so explicit, nor the need for healing action so great. Under the circumstances the responsibility has fallen, naturally, upon the Jews of America, and how they will carry it must largely influence the fate of the Jewry of Europe.

With respect to Zionism, the same conditions that obtained among European Jews obtain among American Jews. At the beginning Zionism signified a social programme based on a democratic social philosophy only to the Jewish immigrant; for native American Jews who sympathized with it, its implications were chiefly philanthropic. The changes in sentiment were here the same as in Europe. Most violently opposed by the extreme radicals and amateur Gentiles, it gained its adherents among the intellectuals, the students, the "progressives," and the working classes, and it is from the last, in fact, that its greatest strength comes. The Jewish masses look to Zionism for leadership on all questions pertaining to the Jewish people as a whole. That, in the present crisis, they feel their obligation, and wish to assume the burden of it, any reader of the Jewish press may see. The means proposed is a democratically constituted congress of Jews, and the press, the great fraternal organizations, the Landsmannschaften, have united in requesting the Zionists to lead in the formation of this congress. To accept their mandate means to carry the struggle towards democracy within Jewry one step farther. Powerful interests, interests analogous to those which opposed the calling of the first Zionist congress by Herzl, are opposed to such a gathering of Jews, and for analogous reasons. The Zionists have accepted the mandate. They propose to call, in coöperation with all Jewish organizations in the country, a congress which shall be representative of all our Jewish citizenship, and which shall discuss publicly and freely every phase of the Jewish question, shall formulate some programme of action. It is hoped that this may, with the assistance and sympathy of the enlightened public opinion of the one great neutral country, which has done so much to ease the plight of the Belgians, make a way to permanent peace and freedom for oppressed Jews.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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